Serving as a Director of Christian Education (DCE) for the past decade and a half, I have been part of many confirmation classes in diverse congregations. These congregations used a number of instructional methods and models, and many made changes while I was in ministry in their midst. Over that time I have seen what many other DCEs and pastors have seen. Each year we look with anticipation upon the students who arrive in the fall for confirmation instruction, hopeful that our work with them will set them on a path toward Christian maturity and lifelong commitment to a God who made the ultimate commitment for them on the cross. Yet, year after year that optimism fades as we relive the same pattern of behavior.
By this time in my ministry, I have the unfortunate ability to predict with troubling accuracy which students will remain connected to the life of the congregation following confirmation and which will not, most within the first month of their time in confirmation classes. Those students whose parents engage in the work you are doing, see confirmation as a partnership rather than the hiring of a spiritual specialist (sort of like a soccer coach or voice teacher), are those families and students who will remain vitally involved following confirmation. Those students whose parents want to understand what the minimum requirements are and how to meet them, who are rarely in worship themselves, and who demonstrate no personal value for their own spiritual growth are those families and students who will receive the outpouring of our energies and efforts at instruction, politely thanks us, and be on their way.
This all lead me a few years ago to undertake a study of confirmation instructional methods with an eye toward understanding how we might employ best practices that might in some way stem the tide of families out our back doors. What follows is a summary of the findings of that study.
The purpose of the study was to explore whether there is any connection between models and methods of confirmation instruction and continued congregational connectedness of confirmation students after they have been through the Rite of Confirmation. Understanding this relationship is beneficial for pastors, Directors of Christian Education, and other lay and called catechists who seek to formulate curricular designs likely to increase student connectedness to congregational life after the Rite of Confirmation.
My foci for this study were as follows:
1. Do different instructional methods have an impact on student congregational connectedness?
2. Does the involvement of the family prior to confirmation impact student congregational connectedness?
3. Does the size of a church impact student congregational connectedness?
4. Does the profession or self-understanding of the role of the leader for confirmation impact student congregational connectedness?
To gather the data for this study a survey questionnaire was developed. Permission was obtained from Marv Bergman of Concordia University, Nebraska, to make use of his survey entitled “What’s Happening in Youth Confirmation”. Supplementary questions were formulated to address issues specifically related to the research questions of this study. A group of 92 pastors, DCEs, teachers, and lay leaders completed the survey in the spring and summer of 2010. Congregational connectedness scores were generated from the survey data and used as the basis for comparison to determine whether a real impact on congregational connectedness could be found when looking at the four foci of the study.
I first looked for a connection between instructional methods and student connectedness to congregational life. The results were not strong, as might be expected from an exploratory study such as this, but significant impact could be found with the use of the following: 1) Lecture; 2) Asking Questions; 3) Service Projects; 4) Student Resources. Further study will be needed to unpack just what all this means in practical terms.
Next I looked at the connection between prior connectedness and student connectedness following instruction. Here there was no doubt of the impact. Statistically the impact of prior connection to worship and youth ministry was enormous (with effect sizes five and six times larger than the definition of a large effect size). What many of the pastors and DCEs know intuitively is accurate: that the connection of the family before confirmation is the single biggest predictor of their connection following confirmation.
Next I looked to see if there was any connection between the size of the church and student connectedness. Here no significant connection could be found. This calls into question the claim that larger churches with larger youth ministries and larger confirmation programs stand a better chance of retaining their students. On the basis of this study one would be more inclined to argue that in fact the size of one’s congregation has precious little impact on students remaining connected.
Finally, I sought to understand if the role of the confirmation instructor was in any way related to student congregational connectedness. This was examined in two ways. First a comparison was done that sought to find any difference related to the calling of the instructor (pastor, DCE, teacher, etc.). No relationship of any significance was found.
Next this question was examined from the perspective of how instructors understand their role. The roles examined were:
- Master (to a Disciple)
- Teacher of the Faith
- Life Coach
- Defender of the Faith
Positive relationships were found for Master, Mentor, Teacher and Life Coach. More significantly, the only negative relationship was found with those instructors who emphasized the Defender of the Faith role. This is not to suggest that no defense of the faith is appropriate for confirmation. Rather a cross examination of the study results suggests that instead a strong correlation between the use of lecture and this role, indicating a particular approach to the defense of the faith may in fact be the issue students have a negative reaction to.
So what has been learned?
1. How teaching takes place does have an impact on the connection students have to congregational life, though not a large one.
2. The size of the church and its youth program is not a determining factor for continued connection to church life.
3. How pastors, DCEs, and others approach their role as they teach is critical.
4. Most importantly, connecting students to the life of the church prior to confirmation is the most critical element for continuing connection to church life.
Thus as pastors, DCEs, and others put their confirmation programs together they should make sure to create for their students an open environment in which questions related to the faith are accepted and wrestled with, rather than argued against from a place of authority. Care should be taken when designing confirmation programs to allow for interaction as students explore their faith questions with love and support from their leaders. Children’s ministry programs should be heavily invested in and promoted as a critical way to lay a foundation for success in confirmation and beyond, even going so far as to integrate content from Luther’s Small Catechism into children’s programing. In this way students are able to learn via memorization at a time in life when they are developmentally better suited for this form of learning (see ConfirmationA Developmental Understanding) and prepared for deeper abstract considerations for the faith questions related to confirmation.
In short, this study points away from the typical solution of selecting newer or flashier curriculum as a quick fix for student retention. Rather it points to a more holistic understanding of confirmation as it relates to the entire life of the church. The seeds for a successful confirmation class are planted when a pastor meets with young parents as they bring their child for baptism and continues to be strengthened as the church walks along in faith and support of the family as a whole from that point up to and through the day that small child participates in the Rite of Confirmation. Catechesis is a lifelong process, not merely a program for Jr. High youth and it is time for the church to look at it that way.